Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

WATERSLIDES IN AUXILIARY HOSPITAL WASHROOM by Daniel Thompson

 

On Being A Beautiful Boy

           There is a nuanced and etching sadness the moment you realize that you’re not what others would consider conventionally attractive. I realized my body was shaped differently than other boys one summer afternoon in the aisles of a TJ Maxx with my mother. As she swept through the aisles pulling down discounted bottles of designer anti-frizz shampoo and glancing at overstocked heels she could never wear, I asked her if I would be able to go look at some underwear for myself. Navigating through racks of faux fur coats and jumpers, I pushed past a family of four huddled around a sale rack of tank tops to the men’s underwear section. As soon as I reached for a four pack of hanes, white, briefs my hand began to shake and my heart threatened to burst out of my chest. I held my hand in the air for a few seconds wondering if I were having a stroke when it began to occur to me that my eyes were laser-locked on the package the underwear model on my Hanes container was sporting. Immediately I began to pace the underwear section, making sure to carefully pause at equal interims to stare at the sock section just to the left. In my mind, anyone passing would have just thought I was a very confused shopper, when in actuality it looked like I was cruising. Eventually I steadied myself and walked directly in front of the underwear wall. There they were. All of my first boyfriends in a row. Each with perfectly coiffed hair, dimples that I wanted to kiss goodnight, and abs I wanted to grate fresh mozzarel off of. I scanned the rows and rows of underwear models and found the most beautiful one: a man with olive tan skin, dirty brown hair, and green eyes that challenged me to touch him. Holding him in my hand, I felt my athletic shorts rise and stiffen, so that I had to use the underwear pouch to hide myself as I stumbled back to my mother. I found her in the perfume aisle whispering softly to herself, “...if only I had somewhere to wear this.” Keeping the underwear glued to me long enough for my hard on to go down and for her to usher me to the front of the store I felt elated when the cashier placed them in a bag for us. My beautiful man was coming home with me.

    Although my fascination with underwear models continued, I didn’t really understand there was a difference between me and them. It wasn’t until I discovered porn that I began to know that there are binaries that exist in the world; that there are “gorgeous” people who have been photoshopped and lit into resembling plastic ethereal creatures, and that there are plain people, and more importantly,  that I definitely fell into the latter category. After the thunderous sounds of my father’s snores would reach my ears upstairs, I would boot up my PlayStation portable and log onto SeanCody. Thumping my elbow against the wall as I went at myself I was transfixed by how sculpted their bodies where. The way their hulking shoulders lifted each other up and how their bodies twisted and smash into each other in such a visceral way excited and confused me. After I would finish I would walk to my mirror and stare at it for thirty minutes or so. If I turned my body to the right and sucked in my stomach until my face purpled, I almost looked like I could have abs hidden underneath years of baby fat and homemade carrot cake. If I dropped my voice to a gruff growl I could almost mimic their moans as they fucked on screen.

    I was never considered a particularly attractive boy by anyone who had met me. Inheriting my mother’s thick hair it constantly appeared like I had a growth protruding from my scalp every time my hair grew past three inches. It was wooly and full and when my mother would cut it every two weeks she’d leave it in the garden for birds to build sturdy nests from. The first time I kissed a girl she ran her fingers through it and a rough knot snagged her ring in what she would later tell her friends was my “dog fur.” I never knew when to stop eating chinese, or pizza, or icecream, or second dinner, and it never occurred to me that eating two bagels for breakfast wasn’t the best idea. I was born chubbie and it wasn’t until my growth spurt that I even began to consider how being thin meant people would treat you differently. The same summer I grew eight inches my grandmother took me out shopping for an entirely new set of clothes. “A strapping man like yourself needs pants that fit you,” she told me as she ran her credit card at the Macy’s check out line.

    High school was a particularly unique channel for me because although I had grown in height, my face remained frozen in the past. I look back at my senior year photo and I see a boy with sea-foam green braces (at the time I thought they would look cool, in actuality  they looked like I had shoveled spinach into my mouth right before the photo was taken) my hair is slicked back so it looks wet, and the concealer I had begged my mother to put on me does little to hide the acne that had colonized on my face. When we’re young we rarely see ourselves clearly in the way we do as adults. We feel, at the time, that our faces are final and that we will never be as beautiful as we are in that moment. I would return home from college for the first time seven months after my senior year photo was taken as what many would consider, “a new man.”

    Sometimes seven months can feel overnight, and my transformation felt like it had happened while I was having night terrors. My braces came off, my face thinned out, and my acne decided to stop being a complete dick-wad. A week into college my roommate advised me that only middle-schoolers and poor people used LA Looks, and I promptly poured my bottle of level 7 hold gel down the drain. I felt like one of those children who were never able to drink in high school, so during college they become an alcoholic. Except instead of just drinking I was after a different type of buzz. One that can only come from another person paying attention to you; a buzz that comes when someone feels a carnal urge just from looking at you and you alone.

    The first time I began to wield my looks was when I flirted with a bartender and he gave me three free shots. He was around 5’4” and looked like a fat Justin Timberlake and said if he gave me the shots I would have to kiss him. I did and ended up getting so drunk I passed out in the back of my friend’s car on the drive home. I started getting free entry to clubs, free dinners, and free gifts from the men who seemed to like whatever I was exuding. Eventually it wasn’t enough for these men to just want me, I needed them to have me. The first time I slept with a stranger in college he fumbled to take off my shirt and his breathe smelled like Jack Daniel’s. While he scratched and grabbed at my back he called out “Tyler!” like he had loved me for years. We lay there in the dark for a few minutes after, the hum of my fan saving either of us from having to make conversation.. I never asked him who Tyler was, or even what the boy’s name who lay next to be was.  I just liked the way he said Tyler like it was the only name he ever wanted to say again. Maybe Tyler had abs, maybe he was a handsome man. For a night being him didn’t seem so bad.

    I began to notice that the men I was attracting had a certain...appetite for youth. They ranged in age and build but one thing would remain the same: their fascination with my beauty. In their eyes, I was never handsome, or hot, or studly. I was pretty, beautiful, gorgeous. At first these words showered over me and bathed me in a warmth I had never know rubbing my fat rolls together in the mirror as a child. But like all things that fill up empty voids inside of you, they began to trickle out of me faster than I could keep the well of compliments filled up. There is a difference in being a beautiful boy and a handsome man. I discovered this when men would tell me as they dressed that they liked being with me; that sleeping with me felt like sleeping with a woman. I began to rub my stomach again in the mirror at night, and pull at the cheeks on my face willing them to become more hollow and chiseled. Being told I was a beautiful boy was like suddenly becoming a famous child-star, but knowing that your moment in the spotlight was fading fast.

    There is nothing left for me anymore in the touch of a stranger, and there is nothing left in the words that I used to desperately crave to hear. Now when people tell me i’m pretty it feels like a stab to the man I want to be. There is no difference in affection when it comes to being called gorgeous or being called handsome; and it has taken me a few years to understand why these seemingly interchangeable words have bothered me so much. When I was a boy all I wanted was to catch someone’s eye; to be the underwear model that some confused person lusts over. I wanted to be a shiny thing that was revered, polished, put up on a pedestal, but as soon as I got it I realized that there is nothing left in seeing yourself in a mirror and only wondering what others are looking at. I keep waiting for this knowledge to catch up to my actions. I keep waiting to stop waiting for compliments that will eventually stop coming.

    There is a picture my parents keep above their fireplace of a four year old me standing, fully-clothed, in the toilet. My mother loves to tell the story of her son sneaking off every twenty minutes or so to climb into the toilet and flush himself down. Depending on when she tells the story, she had to change his clothes four times, sometimes seven. His hair is blonde and his cheeks look perpetually filled with helium, ballooning them in a cartoon way. He is four and he hasn’t heard of abs, or burgers, or how hollow a grab of his ass can feel. I look at this boy: wet, happy, and smiling, but I don’t recognize him anymore.

 

Shawn Binder is an essayist for Bustle and VICE News. He is currently working on his second book, I Can Self Destruct, when he isn't eating hummus or watching videos of otters. 

Two Poems

Diaspora
                For Bailey        
              

Today I look for losts: dark lips and a bright mouth,
                the wet neck of a loon I cradled once, in my hand – 

a poem. You now, borders away, dulling carrots with a blunt knife, 
                wooden handle, wood of the counter, everything deep 

and warm and by hand. You already know (perhaps) 
                what it means to stand among green and have nothing 

but the dedication of hands. Raise the earth, only, let it
                settle again; nothing grows from pressured loam. 

Can wisdoms like these not navigate rooms, oceans, without
                abandoning some self? They open and release

like painted nesting dolls, only the smallest rolling ashore, 
                a little red twist in the face like rhubarb.

What to give when you are not with me. I watch the housecats 
                milk sun from the cushions, underestimate the artlessness

of decay, how even in dream we already become memory,  
                peripheral and dark as we move into sleep and further. 

But I believe in prayer as in what you have missed:
                there are whales in New York and no one asks

what brought them, their throats like furrowed fields
                the size of schooners, the eyes reflective as cities.

 Consider the phrase heart in the right place – a destination.

 

 

 

Canticle
 

sway a little with the singing. 

if not for fire 
then for its angels:

fruit flies tonight,
hot ash and hollyhock

behind the moon tonight,

curtained by carp ribs
all for the bleaching. 

what constellations of gristle,

each a spindly mobile
for my stork-boned baby.

I dip him in the clean
white hull of the sink,  

learn him that communion 
is a tepid-born thing

of the belly, yet still 
and soft as pear skin

settling in the throat.

love’s a God-given 
rhythm: 

water as rock
no 
water as the vacant tomb

mine is the bitter stone’s throw.
mine is the witness. 

boy-child claw-deep
in the pond tonight, 

hounds pacing in the dull

mud of the banks tonight –
a chase as empty as fire,

the day you took me 
for a Madonna formed by blood.

but a winsome piece of jade,
there, taken from my lip,

puckers for a bright thumb
to fill its missing space.

so an angel counts its fingers:

on the first day, 
crows. empty nests.

and the second, 
the arranged marriage between lake and sky.

the third and fourth were actually one day,
and it was spent folding paper

for the fifth
who fed on the crumpled pages,

throwing itself into the sea
for the sixth 

who feared drowning
yet did nothing

except wait,
crows in hand.

 

 

 

Sammi Bryan has lived and loved in Memphis, TN for the past six years, during which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Rhodes College, cohosted the reading series The Bastet Quartet, and stumbled her way through cat-motherhood, among other misadventures. She will pursue an MFA in poetry at the University of Alabama in the fall. This is her first publication. 

body#0017


Wrenched violently from a dream;

                 no time for respite; 

                                  descent into fresh fantasies begins.
 

Momentarily trapped 

                 (encased within a decisive nothingness),

                                  its sphere of consciousness 

                                  pulses out 

                                  towards extremities of

                                  a corporeal cage.
 

A moment of hyper-sentience approaches:

                 ephemeral,

                                  prodigious nonetheless.
 

No longer bound by somatic confines; 

                 the body’s presence not merely perceived. 
 

It is:

                 the body, 

                                  every part of it

It is: 

                 the teeth, 

                               the lungs, 

                                                the heart, 

                                                                the spleen. 
 

Thoughts no longer restricted;

                 words and pseudo-images usurped. 
 

Its teeth:

                 are thinking

                                  (a more appropriate term lacking). 
 

Its teeth:

                 have thoughts

                                  (again vocabulary restricts). 
 

Nerves pulsate with messages:

                 naked, 

                                  decoded. 
 

Its mind has broken free, 

                 all oppressive boundaries 

                 forgotten. 

No longer just thoughts,

                 its mind is: 

                                its whole, 

                                                its being. 
 

Equilibrium returns; 

                 it is thrown back into the world. 
 

Memories faded;

                 sensation of knowing gone;

                                contact with the body’s secret workings lost. 
 

A new body stares down from above

                 (where else?);

                                  abhorrent;

                                                reflected image borne

                                                of polished surfaces

                                                nearby. 
 

Only a few minutes old,

                 this body already has a past. 

Every moment it experiences: 

                 simply memories of moments 

                 gone by. 
 

Every new body it inhabits,

                 awareness increases. 

(Numerous meat sacks before; 

                 infinite number to follow.)
 

Fresh, innocent vessels

fueling a thirst for 

forbidden knowledge;

                 the past ardently refusing 

                 all attempts at

                 quantifi-

                 cation. 
 

A little

                 /a lot:

                                  not possible.

Can’t increase it; 

                 definitely can’t reduce it.
 

“You have it

                 /you don’t,”

                                it now realises, 

                                                after centuries 

                                                of new beginnings.
 

It is always there,

                 there is no escaping it.

Only way to slip through its paralysing embrace: 

                 to not be. 
 

“To not exist,” 

                 an unfamiliar voice 

                 whispers.
 

Those words.

Its words.

Words echoing violently inside

for what may as well have been eons. 
 

“To not exist,” 

                 the voice now screams 

                                  (at what sounds like

                                  the top 

                                  of its lungs). 
 

A painful dryness spreads through the back of its throat.

                 (The voice, 

                                  of course,

                                                   being its own.)
 

It lowers itself onto the floor; 

                 abandoning the cold slab 

                 upon which it had awakened;

                 rips sensors

                 from various parts 

                 of its body. 

Its legs feel strange, 

                 almost alien; 

                                  to be expected 

                                  during the first few days.
 

This is a body it is going to enjoy experiencing pain with

                 /through

                                  /of.
 

It

                 (the body)

                                  feels proud.

It

                 (the subject)

                                  does not approve.

 

 

 

 

Nicholas Lawrence is a postgraduate philosophy student living in Stockholm. His original fiction has been published in Tincture Journal and his translations appear on Monday Art Project. 

Three Poems


Exaltation in December
          For Susan Savage
 

                   When suddenly the road in front of you collapses
                   into the froth of the Pacific,
                   the wind blows the tails of your coat,

                   and you think of your mother washing windows
                   always on the tips of her toes— 
                   a sight on the threshold of being:

                   a harvest moon rising,
                   a brief, blissful blizzard,
                   a sidewalk breathing steam.

                   When the flowers blossom 
                   into something a little more sinister— 
                   thick petals that shed their color. 

                   The distance is too great, 
                   like the span of the canyon
                   that tears through the desert floor.

                   The ships dotting the horizon fade 
                   into black before daybreak and you've 
                   seen it before, in the eyes of wounded elk. 

                   Heard it when your uncle holed himself up
                   in a Missouri cabin, peppered his memories
                   and salted his skull across the mantelpiece.

                   Felt it when your father fought for each breath
                   until you left the hospice—you came back to find
                   a bed of flesh and hair.

                   You remember the low rumble
                   of his chest, your face pressed
                   against it like the windowsill. 

                   The streaks left on the glass were makeshift
                   arrangements of summer afternoons when 
                   the river refused its bed and rose to meet the sky. 

                   When we'd race down the hill on a radio-flyer
                   wagon and you would scream with excitement,
                   dirty hair flying like a bullet-riddled flag.

                   Or the times at the beach when the whole family
                   glowed of gold; you were digging in the sand,
                   rubbing it across pudgy cheeks with a grin.

 

 

 

 

Sourful Things
 

   I used to throw words at people 
now I eat people's words 
        bleat less easily.
   My mom feeds burgers to bulldogs 
to children of all ages 
         and senior citizens. 
   She says Dad finds himself at work 
there are six mirrors here 
          garage stays closed.
    She doesn’t leave the door unlocked 
just says sourful things
           my teeth hurt at night.

 

 

 

 

Neighbors 
 

School was almost over
the day the earth split.

The roast tasted metallic
as my parents passed spare words.

The footage played on television,
bodies projecting bluish on the profiles of the family.

As we tried to eat, 
we tried not to look. 

That weekend, my mother took me
to visit her sister, her headstone

next to one of those lost. My mother
spoke with his in hushed voices. I

overheard something about bullies,
other parents, guns. We drove home, 

her hands soft on the wheel. Years later, 
she called me on the phone, said our neighbor

was expelled from school for bringing
his father’s pistol. My tongue pushed against my teeth,

and I thought about the afternoons
we kids would meet in the cul-de-sac—

the water we shot from plastic arced terrible,
catching the red rays of the sun.

 

 

 

Nicholas Carlos Fuenzalida is an MFA poetry candidate at NYU, where he serves as layout editor for the Washington Square Review. He lives and works in New York.

What Light

They worked their way slowly up the hill, him in the lead. Tangles of dry cedar limbs picked at their sweaters and poked at their skin. Every step forward was a puzzle, a sequence of careful foot placement, firm hands on branches, and inelegant bends. He forged a path with irresponsible enthusiasm. She mostly ducked and waited.

He stopped near the top of the hill. A flat bit of granite lay barely visible through ankle-high grass, a tiny bald patch in the surrounding thicket. He looked through the trees to his right, the sumac-choked slope descending to rows of withered corn stalks. Was it really this close to the highway? The occasional minivan sped by, pushing a polite whoosh across the field.

Gently squeezing her hand, he turned around. “This is it.”

“It’s lovely,” she offered breathlessly.

“It is lovely,” he agreed, hesitating. “There was something here…”

The early October air carried hints of sweet, earthy things — compost and manure, leaves and loam — sharpened by the slight chill. They looked down into the valley opposite the cornfield at an oak grove. The mighty trees stood proudly apart, eschewing the close familiarity enjoyed by the maples, the ash, the spruce. A royal carpet filled the wide spaces between the trunks, red and gold leaves resting lightly upon each other as if each had been purposefully placed. Rays of warm autumnal light decorated the noble arches above their heads.

His first time here had been as a young explorer, master of the woods. Those were the summers he painted his fingers purple with wild grape and black raspberry, his arms and cheeks orange with bloodroot. He knew the plants — the ferns, the honeysuckle, the jack-in-the-pulpit. He followed the narrow deer trails between endless ridges for hours. The burrs, the barbed wire, and the mosquitoes were less of a nuisance than the abundant stinging nettles.

At that age, a journey through the woods was an inspired wander; he was never so far from the house as to get truly lost, but the hidden worlds in each valley were only coincidentally adjoined. The hickory tree by the lake, the house built of grapevine, the wide clearing around a single massive tree; lacking permanence of location, they couldn’t always be found at will. This valley, this playground for elves, he had only seen once.

And now he had found it again, but something was lost.

 

In the darkness ahead, two beams of light peeked shyly around the corner. With growing confidence they traced the wide curve, unveiling clumps of tall ditch grass before shooting down the asphalt strip. For two proud seconds they blazed with abandon, then dropped back fearfully to more humble illumination.

He blinked, flicking off his brights. “It’s funny,” he started.

She slipped into his pause, “You’re funny.”

“Yes, I try. But I can’t get over it, you know? I remember that place. Still have dreams about it. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but man. It’s so tiny.”

“Well, naturally. You’re a big tall man now, baby!” She gripped his leg for emphasis. The moonlight played on her tired eyes, reveling in weary jest. She leaned back heavily in her seat, enjoying the hot air at work on her toes — the defrost setting.

He smiled. “That’s not it, though. I mean, it’s part of it for sure. But it went on forever; I could’ve grown ten feet, and I still would’ve needed half a day to walk across. There were never borders, at least not any I knew about. I guess I know too much.”

A sniff and a snort. “Know too much?”

“You know what I mean.” He stopped. “Or at least as well as I do, anyway. I think before, when I was younger, I knew the woods in my heart. I knew the lights, the sounds, the loneliness. But now I’ve seen maps, and I’ve driven by too fast. I’ve been too far away, and it’s in my head.”

“You’re too old for magic,” she mumbled sleepily, the words barely making it from her mouth.

“It seems so. But why? There’s still so much I don’t know. Learning more only provokes new questions. It’s not just the knowing. What takes it from curiosity to awe, you know? What’s missing from the mystery?”

She didn’t answer. Her eyes were shut, her breathing steady. At home with him, at home with the world. He saw the stars and felt he could grab them, like he could reach out his arms and wrap up everything in sight.

“Maybe I’m not afraid anymore.”

 

She called him on Wednesday, shortly after six.

“I think we did it,” she quietly proclaimed.

“Are you serious? Do you know for sure?” He stood up and closed the office door. With the receiver in one hand, he began pacing in front of the desk.

“Not one-hundred percent, but I feel it. It’s — I think it’s real this time. The doctor says not to come in for two weeks.”

The silence that followed grew full with expectation, gaining weight with each unanswered second.

“That’s incredible! How do you feel?”

“Happy. Scared. Everything at once.” Her breath whistled and roared, nervous elation pouring through the phone.

“I’ll head home right away.”

He gently hung up. He stared out the window, watching the sunset reflect off the distant glass towers. The soft evening light glowed with a brilliant uncertainty. O joyous mystery! O frightful unknown!

 

 

 

Zach Walchuk is a software developer and writer living in Denver, Colorado. He shares life with his wonderful wife Claire and is expecting his first son in October. You can see more from him by following on Medium and Twitter.

Café

The café is different today. Yesterday it was filled with people and talk of hope. Today it is filled with people, yes, but the talk has an altogether more negative tone. A disabled man with sandy hair rolls into the café with his wheelchair that looks like a chopper motorbike. The women who work at the café take his order but there is a slight crease in the corners of their mouths, a crease that suggests they don’t take this man seriously. When the man in the wheelchair mentions that he wants a cheese sandwich, the women laugh and say yes, of course. Are they laughing too much?

 

*

 

I live near the café in a second floor apartment. My building has a communal toilet that I can see from my window. At night, the light goes on, the light goes off. It is a continuous switching on and off of the light that reminds me of people putting things in their mouths and the inevitable exit of that very same food out of their anus.

 

*

 

Days after noticing the difference in the café, I now noticed that many people couldn’t speak anymore. I saw a young man being beaten to death by another man. A crowd surrounded them both and I said: why are you watching? Nobody said anything, of course; they just pointed to their throats and shrugged.

 

Though, when people did talk, they spoke in facts. I was at a party with a friend. A young woman approached me and said hello and I returned the greeting. She asked me if I knew Peter Sutcliffe and I said yes. He was the Yorkshire Ripper. She said: did you know that there were so many police files on Sutcliffe that the police had to reinforce the floors because of their weight? I said I didn’t. She then said: you know lions? Of course. She laughed and then stopped immediately and whispered into my ear: it’s rare for a lion to eat a carcass it didn’t kill itself.

 

*

 

This seemed to be the way people were now in my pocket of the city. Conversations had been replaced by one-upmanship, knowledge versus knowledge, people tearing at each other’s throats, youngsters fornicating outside of yellow buildings. 

 

*

 

There was a group of people in the café discussing a ‘caucus’. There were seven of them: three men wearing blazers and corduroy trousers and, presumably, shoes; four women: one older than the rest and bitter about it, the others the unfortunate owners of vast overbites, giraffe necks and stringy hair that couldn’t quite cover up a dandruff scalp. I moved closer to hear them talk about problems in the area and things that needed to be done, about people in power and how those people in power abused that power. I looked at them through a beer glass and kept moving the glass, distorting the shapes of their heads. I did this on the oldest man there and held it when I thought his head looked hydrocephalic enough to warrant my mind to take a mental photograph of this image. I thought: these people don’t want to change anything. Everything about them was stale; their clothes, their hair colour, their skin. I disliked their constant ‘weight on my shoulders’ posture, too, and their voices – weak, nasal voices. They were comfortable to sit in cafes and discuss Karl Marx and other books they had read. They were content to attend protests that would definitely change nothing. I watched their jaws move and listened to noises come out of their mouths. I walked out of the café and breathed in and out, put my feet one in front of the other and continued towards my house where nobody was waiting for me.

 

 

*

The woman called herself Sandra, which I commented on.

 

-       That’s an old name.

-       My mother named me after her mother. It was her name too. We have a history of Sandras going back to the 16th century.

-       You’ve traced your family back that far?

-       They’re still alive.

 

We started seeing each other. We took it slowly. I met her at the café and offered to buy her coffee. She said that was too fast, so I ordered water. She said we should drink it out of bowls, so we did. The bowls were put on the table and we lapped at them, spilling water down our clothes. I’d just bought a suit to wear specifically for meetings with Sandra and now it was ruined.

 

*

 

Today, the menu read:

 

Free egg with every accident.

 

*

 

The café began to serve what they called ‘anti-social’ food and drink. I asked for an Americano and I was served a cawdle, which was lemon posset thickened with several egg yolks. I took the drink and asked for some food, preferably a burger. Instead, I received a mallard, it’s entire body smashed and badly minced, put between two large pieces of bread.

 

*

 

Today, everybody was eating eggs.

 

*

 

I dreamed of a life without the café 

Two Poems

the shape of you
 

today, i almost miss the shape of you
fleshed out doughy against my pilling
sheets. did you

kiss anyone last night, 
did you manage to 
stand up straight—  

were your hands strong
and steady?

stars stitched into your sweater.
you were the universe, absolute
truth. your hands called me 

beautiful in a bedroom with
two beds, where downstairs a dog barked
and you breathed.

you seemed like a painting, a token
of that stolid, ancient beauty.

 

 

 

 

11101
 

i cannot see for the white hallways thinned
like timid ivy, their
bubbling teardrop paint and
domino doors marked 
heavy, numbers 
boxed 
with arrogant impatience. 
outside —
             a boy, but i never see
             his face from the third story 
             bathroom window, tipping
             on my toes through the 
             thin pane,  frown blocked by a 
             branch, if not one, then another —
the only tree
in Queens and he has found it  on the street where
men in a dark red Ford, their faces wrinkled gray like cigarette ash, suck
and bite and kiss at me from the half-rolled window, turn the corner, always
turning, always slowing, never stopping, so i hope. sometimes when i
ride the 7 it pushes purple between buildings and graffiti’s
blocked just beneath twenty-story rooftops and wondering at the height, i 
sit in my car watching other cars jolt, revolt, contained, 
and men, their faces folded like tired laundry, suck
their teeth as they settle into the harsh flickered light
and cling to the metal bars in a chain gang of boxes 
as though prison was just like this.

 

 

 

Caitlin Wolper is a junior at Penn State majoring in English and earning her M.A. in Creative Writing. She has won the Beautiful Ruins fiction contest and the Mathew Mihelcic Poetry Award, among other honors. 
 

Love Potion #8

For longer than his memory stretched, Billy had loved – fully loved – Maura Milson. Even as an embryo, his bitty heart pulsed inside his mother’s sac for Maura, a tiny constant radiation of devotion for a girl who hadn’t yet even been imagined.

When he was twelve and she was ten, he finally met her. He saw her across the playground throwing a ball to his sister, her pretty orange curls frizzing, swaying in the sunlight, her freckles multiplying before his very eyes, and his heart pounded louder and faster than ever before, sending out alarms like a metal detector over a buried pile of jewelry.

When she would come over to play with his sister Lena, or later, in high school, whisper the secrets of girlhood behind Lena’s glittered door, Billy would nestle himself up against his bedroom wall, pressing his ear against the stucco until it was a part of him, catching bits of their strange feminine conversations as bits of the wall embedded themselves into his skin.

“What about Tommy?” his sister would say.

“Eh, too short.”

“How about Frankie? He’s so cute, and I think he likes you!”

“Maybe. But not until he gets a car.”

In college, Billy would invite Lena everywhere, knowing Maura would come too.

Though he was an annoyance at the beginning, after enough time Maura got used to Billy. First he was like the fly in the room you can’t catch, you can’t kill, and you can’t release. Then he was like the fish that swims in the corner aquarium, staring, curious. Then he was like the dog you tell your secrets to. Billy and Maura became friends. Good friends. Best friends, Billy would say. He would never forget the surge in his blood the first time she cried in front of him.

“Don't worry," he said, daring to place his hand on her Irish knee. "He's a fool, and he'll know it soon."

“You’re right,” she’d said, sniffling, her face a beautiful wet mess. “I’m better than him anyway.”

Billy couldn’t believe his luck when Maura got evicted the same day his roommate Nicky moved out of the house. His mind went dizzy thinking of making breakfast for her, nights they would stay up late talking, or seeing her in her towel, her orange hair flat and dark and damp against her moistened skin...

But to his surprise, Billy spent most nights in front of the TV, alone, waiting and wishing for Maura to come home and sit on the couch with him. Or, worse, listening to music in his room, headphones drowning out the noises of ecstasy that pushed their way through her bedroom wall and permeated his. First there was Mickey. Then there was Bobby. Then Robby. Then Nicky.

One Sunday morning after just such a night, Billy took a walk to escape the used smell of the apartment, escape the racket, and fill himself with fresh air. He walked down an empty street, hands stuffed in his pockets, head down and buried in his bitterness. He passed a shadow that spoke to him.

“I know how to get her to love you,” the shadow said, unhunching itself.

“Pardon?” said Billy, pausing step.

“Your girl, your heart’s desire, or whatever,” said the shadow. “I can make her
crazy for you.”

Billy looked around. There was no one nearby. His silence was packed with protest, then questions. Then he spoke: “How?”

“This,” said the shadow, extending a wrinkled hand to Billy’s. From it dropped a small glass vial of clear liquid, no bigger than Billy’s pinkie finger."

“What is this, drugs?” Billy asked, having never taken drugs.

“No. But it works, I promise you.”

Billy looked around again. “How... how much?” he asked quietly, having never
bought drugs.

“Fifty bucks,” said the shadow.

“Ha! You’re crazy,” Billy said, reaching out to give the vial back. But the shadow
didn’t take it.

“Fifty dollars is too much to pay for love?” it asked.

Billy pictured Maura’s speckled face, imagined it making the noises he heard
each night. He wondered what it would feel like to enjoy the noise, to know he had inspired it. He pulled some money from his pocket and handed it to the shadow.

“Use it quick, or it might not work,” the shadow warned. “Have fun!” the shadow called after Billy as he walked away, tucking the vial deep into his coat pocket.

***

In his room that night, Billy looked at the vial in his palm.

What if it is drugs? he thought. What if it’s GHB? Ecstasy? LSD? Heroin? He shook it a bit. What if he waited too long to use it? Could it expire? What if it was just water? $50 for water.

He heard the front door open.

“Hi honey, I’m home!” Maura called. Billy put the vial in his pocket and went to greet her.

“Where’s Nicky?” he asked.

“Eh. We broke,” she said, with a sigh meant to prevent tears.

“I’m sorry,” Billy lied.

“Thanks,” Maura said, putting a hand on his arm, one of two arms that could hold
her every night, could drape over her shoulder as they walked down the street, could escort her anywhere she wanted to go, if she wanted to go with him. “You’re always so sweet to me,” she said.

Billy flushed. Maybe he’d never need the vial after all. “Want me to make you some soup?”

***

She’d sparked the hope inside him and now it filled his every breath. Now she sat with him on the couch at night, making fun of the TV personalities who whined on the screen. Billy knew it was only a matter of time before the correct moment would arrive, and each night for months he sat straight, ready. His spine hurt from preparedness.

The moment arrived in June. They sat on the couch together, drinking wine, the fresh summer air floating in through the window. Maura smirked at a woman on TV whose fake yellow hair spilled over her cleaved breasts as she complained about loneliness.

“Maybe she should try a more natural approach,” Maura said dryly.

Billy couldn’t wait any longer. He had waited twenty-four years and two more seconds of silence and patience would surely destroy him.

He leaned over, took her spotted face in his hands and kissed her fervently until she smacked his face away and wiped her mouth, sticking out her tongue as though she’d had a gulp of bad milk.

“What are you doing?” she cried in disgust.

“I love you,” he said simply. He couldn’t even try to explain it beyond three words. No words had ever been simpler, nor easier to say.

“What?” she shrieked.

“I... love you,” Billy said, searching for any other way to express himself. “I love you. I love you... I love you. We’re meant to be together.”

Maura scoffed. “No, we’re not.”

Billy swallowed. “Why not?”

“Because,” she said, as though it were obvious, “we’re too different, and you do nothing but sit on the couch every night, and you’re... weird, and your breath always smells weird, and...” she stopped herself and looked at Billy, at his eyes shining with disappointment. “I’m sorry. But no. No, no.” She almost laughed.

Billy stared at the ground. He’d used up all the words he knew.
“I’m going to get more wine.” Maura stood and left the room.
Billy sat, frozen. He couldn’t breathe. The walls of his chest were caving in like
cliffs in an apocalypse, crashing into the sea of his stomach.

He reached into his pocket. He took out the vial, which he’d carried every day, just in case. He wondered whether the months of bobbing along in the fabric against his warm thigh could have made it spoil. He looked toward the kitchen. He uncorked the vial and, before he could think twice, poured the tiny bit of clear liquid into Maura’s nearly- empty glass. He stuffed the empty vial back into his pocket as she returned to the room. She poured a bit of wine into each of their glasses.

“I’m sorry, Billy,” she said again. She raised her glass.

“Friends?” He looked at her. What if it was poison?

“Friends forever,” she said.

Billy raised his glass. He wordlessly clinked hers.

She took a long sip of wine.

“It’s just not a good idea,” Maura said. “And I just broke with Nicky, and...” her voice trailed into silence, her eyes to nothingness, and then she looked at Billy. He watched with curiosity as her face flushed red. She blinked.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She stared at him, not seeing him. Then she stared at him, seeing him. He could feel her finally seeing him, into him, beyond his eyes, beyond his face, his weird breath.

“Yes, just... I feel the strangest something...” she said, her eyes caressing him. Her very gaze felt warm upon Billy’s never-touched skin. Her eyes were so full of tenderness they looked like they might spill into tears. She sighed with her voice and swallowed it. “Let me just... I want to just...”

She leaned over to Billy and kissed him. Her lips were wet with gloss and tasted like bad grapes. She took his face into her hands and he let himself be brought to her. He put his hands to her face, to her soft cheek which was pulsing hot with... love?

He touched her hair, her curls electric and beautiful, his fingers were lost in her waves, and he was sure that never in his life had he been so happy in one lasting moment. He saw their future together zipping across his mind as a flood of relief and excitement washed through his veins.

Maura ran her hands through his hair. She tugged it a bit. She grabbed two fistfuls and pulled, hard. “Ahhhowww,” Billy said. She pulled away and blinked. He smiled to reassure her and kissed her again. He felt her consuming warmth and he wanted to drown in that heat. She opened her mouth, thrusting her tongue into his as though she wanted to devour him, sucking in her lungs and stealing his breath.

She pushed his body down to the floor and climbed on to straddle him like a gymnast’s vault. She kissed him, moaning, grabbing the flesh of his body. She was making different sounds than Billy was used to hearing through the wall. She pulled off his shirt and he pulled hers, and she kissed him with her teeth, nibbling at first until the last nibble transformed into a terrible, hungry bite. Billy yelped in pain and pushed her face away.

“Maura,” he said, his lip bloody. He looked at her face, her eyes wild with passion, her lips trembling, sucking in for breath, her ribs appearing and disappearing like a feral cat’s. She had lost the look of Maura and now he didn’t know who he was looking at. Had Nicky endured this passion with pleasure? Bobby? Robby?

Maura bared her teeth into a terrifying smile and made a guttural sound that could only be described as a growl, then dove back into him, running her nails along his chest, his side, then digging in with animal vigor until she drew blood, Billy’s flesh gathering beneath her nails.

Billy freed his face from her savage kiss, and tried to say “Stop, Maura,” but she dug three fingers into his mouth and tugged his jaw open, reaching inside and scratching his tongue. Billy’s taste buds burned with acidity. She laughed like he’d never seen a human laugh. He was struck with fear as she went for his belt. He pushed her off and jumped to his feet.

“Maura, you have to stop!” he shouted. She perched on the couch on her hands and feet, staring into Billy’s eyes like a lion watching a gazelle. She squinted. “Maura,” he said again, searching for his girl inside the beast.

She lunged forward at him and he jumped away, dashing into the hallway. She ran after him and pushed him against the wall, clawing, grunting, pulling. Billy, bloody, got a hold of her shoulders and threw her to the other side of the wall with all his might. She landed like a rag doll, collapsing to the floor, her hair strewn around her face.

They paused, panting on opposite sides. Maura lifted her head and through her mangled curls Billy could see the fire in her eyes flicker, gaining strength into a true flame. Maura clawed off the remaining threads of her clothing, never taking her eyes away from Billy’s eyes, two sets pulled together like Velcro. Her white skin burned hot pink, pulsing, terrifying.

“Maura, that’s not a good idea,” Billy said, hands in front of him in defense.

Maura screamed from every organ in her body and charged at Billy, who leapt for the door and shut himself outside, holding the handle against Maura’s angry, insane screeches of lust and attempted escape. He braced his feet against the wall and pulled opposite Maura with every horrified fiber of his being.

Without warning, the tug-of-war stopped. Billy fell to the ground, landing with a victorious thud on the Welcome mat. Everything was silent. The house was still. A dog barked down the street. Billy ran out to the road and looked toward the house.

A terrifying howl arose from inside, and in a moment three neighbors stood beside Billy in timid curiosity. They watched as Maura jumped to the window, fully naked, and continued in the longest breath her painful, visceral scream of desire. She had no words now, only howls.

They watched, wide-eyed, as she pounded her splayed hands against the windows, her skin so scarlet red now that it was glowing, glittering like a thousand embers fanned.

“What the fuck,” said somebody.

“I... I think she took something,” Billy said, fingering the empty vial in his pocket.

Maura screamed, she glowed, she pounded harder and harder and harder until all at once her body burst into a red-yellow flame, a blinding shock of color that dissolved as quickly as it had arrived, leaving nothing – no Maura, no screams, not even a puff of bestial smoke.

The neighbors returned to their homes, sure they were in a dream. The street was quiet again, except for the dogs and the moonlight. Billy smashed the vial in the street, and went inside to vacuum up the ashes of his one true love. 

 

 

 

Jenna-Marie Warnecke is an essayist, poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared on sites including Narratively and The Toast. She lives in New York City.

Two Poems

conflicting desires


the consistency of these elbows, knobby knees, slight
split of speech like a lip in a fistfight, first 
to bleed, i am tired of this
kind of permanence, just like i am tired
of sifting through the same sand in my skin, finding nothing
but slipping through, i want to empty 
my body of its contents, wash myself out like a glass stained
red wine, find out what's cracked, what's howling what
is howling? 

sound bounces off solid
objects; ribs, chin, chest, it's hard to teach quiet
when every mouth echoes, i want to know which corridor
to walk through to find the root of whatever tree
has planted itself in every corner of me, every tangle
of leaves reaching
for some unknown edge of sky, reaching 
through every pore as if searching for escape, or 

reaching for some unknown
edge of sky, as if by touching, affirming 
some kind of certainty.

 

 

 

 

depersonalization 
 

it is your birthday, and in another
life i might be sitting in your
lap, but here, you are across 
the room, i am pretending 
not to write a poem about you. it's
silly, really, this ache, this reaching
for wrists without knowing 
where the vein is, only the shape
of it, shape it should be, see 
sometimes all i need is a tongue
in my mouth to remind me
i have one, you
are warm, solid, you are here, no
matter the distance, what i mean
is this. listen. you are all
kinds of carnival, while
i'm still trying to recognize
my face in the mirror maze, so
how we arrived
in the same place is a mystery, but
still. i have curled into your body
like a comma, pausing, no
matter our opposite
languages, directions, questions.
it is your birthday, and i want 
to ask you to stay, say 
anything in my direction, i'll
assume yes, i'll assume
my fingers taking shape across
the solidity of you, i'll assume
solidity, my own skin 
tangible.

 

 

 


Emily Alexander is a student, aspiring writer, mediocre (yet enthusiastic) chef, and nervous driver. She is slowly working her way through an English degree at the University of Idaho, while learning to be a functional human being. More of her work can be found in the Harpoon Review, A Literation, and Blue Monday Review.
 

Do You See Me?

 

My two day unwashed hair is greasy, face dotted in red and white pimples as I stand at the counter with yellow-egg splotches dribbled down my white t-shirt, combined with brown dusty crumbs from the last customer’s toast. I push my black, grease-stained skirt, apron-wearing-hip against the counter. The pocket of my apron holds runaway home fries, escapees from a plate earlier this morning. On my uniform I have all the essential elements of a great Canadian breakfast. If I get hungry later, I can snack on my clothes. I grab the coffee pot that contains the steaming black tar, lean in to ask a customer in my soft spoken, customer-oriented voice, “More coffee?”

I come from a large family consisting of me and my five siblings: Debra, Rob, Joseph, Cynthia, and Brad.  I am one of the middle children. Last Saturday night, I spent the evening scrubbing my mother’s bathtub, sinks and toilets. My mother has been recently diagnosed with colon cancer and is in treatment. Cancer and chemo stole my mother’s energy. Cleaning is now an impossible task for her. Our father is gone; the victim of a Christmas heart attack last year.

My sister, Cynthia, called as I was leaving the house to ask a favour.  Cynthia is divorced and has crossed the eight-month line. She has started to shop for a new husband. Her husband, after six years of marriage, decided one night he didn’t want to be married anymore and left. It was that simple for him.    

Cynthia is convinced that this new guy is “the one” and begged me through desperate tears to babysit her daughter, Kendra. As I hesitated in providing her with an affirmative answer, she began rambling about the unfairness of life: a husband who abandoned her and their child, changing his mind without warning after an agreement was made in marriage and words.

Cynthia proceeded to paint a picture of her date, Henry, like this: countless child-friendly dinners out with Kendra, trips to museums as a family and she spoke at length about a planned trip to New York which Henry will finance. But, on that particular Saturday night, it was just to be the two of them at the Keg Steakhouse. Unfortunately, the babysitter that Cynthia booked for the evening developed a spontaneous case of the stomach flu, a common occurrence for THAT babysitter.

Cynthia’s daughter, Kendra, is a five-year-old, adorable little girl. According to Cynthia, all of my other siblings were busy. Rob was swamped at work managing competing projects for his company; Joseph had a date with his model-girlfriend. The hand model demands Joseph be on time, must not cancel scheduled dates under any circumstances and Joseph pays for all their outings even though they are not in a committed relationship. The youngest in our family, Brad, broke his leg two weeks ago riding his motorcycle on slippery streets which were covered in rain that later froze when the temperature plummeted in the evening. Brad said he wanted just one more ride before the season ended. He can barely walk to the fridge. But, he’s lucky to be alive.

That reminds me – I need to make Brad some food. McDonald’s wrappers littered his apartment intermingled with the odd empty potato chip bag when I saw him on Tuesday. His friends think they are helping. He will be three hundred pounds before that cast comes off.  

Debra never picked up the phone when Cynthia called. She never does. To be fair, she works full time as an administrative assistant at a hospital and has two children. Debra is constantly shuttling her children to various extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, guitar lessons, volleyball, basketball or swimming – the list is endless.   After shuttling, Debra can be found up to her elbows in soap suds scrubbing the pots and pans from dinner. Kevin, her husband, works full time too, but prepares healthy dinners for his team. That’s what he calls them – a team. After the children are in bed, Kevin will help Deb clean the kitchen.

I secretly think Kevin uses the time in the kitchen as an excuse to be with Debra. I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, Kevin whistling while wiping counters down or drying dishes. (No man is ever that happy to do housework.) But, he will also make soap boobies or a penis in the dish water when Debra isn’t looking. When he has built a sudsy penis, inevitably, Debra will stick her hands in the water breaking the penis in two. On cue, Kevin winces and screams, cradling his private parts in horror. A small smile crosses my face. What a clown – and a good guy.

That left me to babysit. Babysitting and cleaning toilets on a Saturday. I love Kendra, but sometimes I just want to stop. Stop it all. No more working, cleaning, cooking, or babysitting.

But, I know what will happen at work if I stopped. Grumpy, old, grey-haired, wrinkled, cane-wielding-Gertrude will have me fired.  She will stroll into this diner, demand her coffee, and when I don’t respond, will tap her cane three times on this black, slippery floor (she says she does it to get my attention) and scowl - demanding to speak to Rudy, the manager. Words like incompetent and inefficient will roll off of Gertrude’s tongue. I’ve heard it before.  

I’m sure Gertrude doesn’t really need the cane. I suspect she carries it as a weapon to beat unsuspecting victims, (no one would be suspicious of an old, defenceless woman) or to trip innocent people as they walk down the streets for malicious fun.   

Does anyone see me? I am a thirty-six year old, University-educated woman. I only completed University through student loans and hard work. I am not smart. I’ve been told. While the other wealthier, brilliant, students clubbed on weekday and weekend nights, I sat in my room studying text books convinced it would get me somewhere. And here it is. I am like the 1980’s, red rose wallpaper on these walls.

 I am just part of the old decor.

I’m circling the black, grunge-ridden floor of this diner with red sticky booth seats. I watch as Allison wipes the syrup from her blonde, blue-eyed, toddler daughter’s face.  I check my other customers; Brian and Dan are in expensive grey business suits today and both wear their lucky Italian ties. They discuss another sub division planned in the area. Family and careers are juxtaposed in this world. I have neither.

Am I just a waitress, cleaner, cook, babysitter? I’ve covered all the domestic roles except the one I really wanted:  to be a mother.  After multiple miscarriages and a visit to a fertility specialist she said your odds of successfully conceiving a child and caring it to term are less than 20 percent.

I’m losing on all the front lines.   

In terms of career, how did I end up here? Failure again, is the correct word. In my past, I have held several administrative positions at companies with each company folding faster than the one before. There are signs when a company is in a downward spiral: employees diminish through lay-offs or resignation, vacant offices increase, funds for necessities such as office supplies decrease, and there are many, many, closed door meetings. I bounced out of each company quickly, locating a new opportunity shortly before my pink slip arrived. The last time, I was not so lucky.  

Unemployed - it sounds like a dirty word: worthless, undesirable, down-sized. I was off for a few months and then everyone, with the exception of my husband, told me I should just take anything. Family and friends said: certainly you can wait tables as you did in University. Some money coming in is better than no money. My husband was the exception, encouraging me not to settle too quickly. But, after a few months enduring relentless, you could always work at McDonald’s jokes (why does everyone think that joke is so damn funny?) I took a waitressing job. Here I circle, one year later.

This is the middle of my life where I should have most of my shit together. And yet, I have nothing – no career, no children and no house. I am biologically deficient in every way – not smart and unable to reproduce. If natural selection is always at play, it has determined my genes to be inferior. How can I argue?      

I circle. If this were the end of my life, I would hope at my eulogy, I would be described as a good and kind daughter, wife, sister and friend. Oh God - please don’t say, what made her really happy was cleaning, cooking and serving. I swear, I will come back and haunt that person. All joking aside, my real concern is - does anyone know who I am?  

I blink back tears as I place the coffee pot back on the burner. I want a different life, but how do I make it happen? There are bills to pay, family and friends that depend on me. I want to change my life, but how? How much of my life do I give to others and how much am I entitled to? What is the ratio?  90/10? 50/50? 30/70?

I know part of how much I give depends on how much I offer. But, I wonder – if I took care of me first, was happier, healthier and less resentful, wouldn’t I be able to help others more?  

Or is that just the selfish?  What happens if I took the $15,000 in my RRSP’s and travelled for a few months to relax and think about what I want to do with my life? I hang my head down and put my hands on my face in an effort to hide the tears that swell in my eyes. Physically, emotionally and financially bankrupt; I am spent.  

I have other plans. Here’s an example. What if I used the $15,000 in RRSP’s to buy property on the outskirts of the city in the hopes in ten or twenty years a developer will purchase it for a subdivision?  As already proven, the area is in a boom phase for residential building. It would be a long shot. I know. But I might be financially secure in my later years.

I hate this job.  I should quit right now. Walk out those doors today and find a Monday to Friday job that pays more than the $19,000 I made last year, tips included.  

If I quit, do I include the waitress position on my resume if I want another administrative role? Is it true that it’s better to do something versus nothing? Or, if I left it on my resume, does it demonstrate to potential employers that I lack ambition?

Who am I kidding though? I wouldn’t quit on Rudy. Rudy, the owner, defended me against cantankerous Gertrude when she declared me incompetent, shuffled my shifts around to accommodate my mother’s sudden and various medical appointments, and I am always called in first if another waitress calls in sick. He’s a wonderful boss. I know I’m lucky in some ways.       

As I uncover my face, I see her white hair. GERTRUDE. How long has she been sitting there?  

“Hello dearie,” she says as her head is tilted and she taps her cane three times on the floor. “Where’s my coffee?”

I grab a cup and saucer and pour the morning brew.

“Is there something wrong?” She asks in her squeaky, kind, grandmother voice.

It’s just a trick, I tell myself. Don’t fall for it. She doesn’t care. “Absolutely nothing,” I say with my head raised and a reassuring smile.

“Good. I was concerned I would lose the worst waitress that I’ve ever met.”   

I stare at her dumbfounded, purse my lips together as my jaw locks up. God, I hate her.

Gertrude smiles at me, her eyebrows are raised as she tastes the black, caffeinated, poison.

Now that her brain is on, there will be no end to her comments. Trust me, I know what I am. She doesn’t need to point it out.

Gertrude places her coffee cup down on the saucer and stares at me for a long moment. The smile evaporates from her face as she drops a card on the counter and pushes it across to me.

“I give you a hard time Tammy, because I know you can do more than this. Maybe you’re tired or lazy, or possibly both, beaten down by life’s complications. But, don’t waste your life away. My daughter, Pamela Radder, works for an employment agency. You should call her. I’m sure she can find you another job better suited to your education and skills.”

My mouth gapes open as I stare at her in disbelief. I hesitate for a moment wondering if she is playing some awful joke on me.

Gertrude’s eyes are steady, lips have narrowed, shoulders and jaw have tightened. She looks serious.

Softly she says, “Listen, I’ve lived a long life - and mostly a good one. I was married to a wonderful man for forty years.” Gertrude take’s a deep breath as if she’s about to go under water. I watch her grey eyes get misty like a foggy day. Then, she exhales and the fog dissipates.

She continues, “We have two beautiful, successful children who take care of me now. I am also blessed with three grandchildren. But, just like you, I went to University then settled into low-paying jobs after graduation. My husband, Daniel, was in a car accident shortly after we were married and we had two small children to feed at the time. I worked anywhere to pay the bills.”

Gertrude chokes on more tears that have gathered again at this memory. Her voice is thick. She is drowning. The tears fill her lungs making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone talk. I know. The same thing happens to me when I talk about Dad.    

With more determination she clears her throat with greater force, sits erect, pushing the painful memory back.  She continues, “Daniel eventually recovered and became a successful businessman. After he was better, I gave up on any chance of having a career, too tired by footsteps I had already taken. My husband was a modern man for our time and he encouraged me to pursue the things I talked about when we first met.”

“He sounds like a wonderful man,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

For a moment I think about my husband. He was the only one who told me not to go back to waitressing. He said I could do more.

“Yes,” she says. “He knew me better than I knew myself. I was a fool who flatly refused to think outside the box, as the saying goes nowadays. I regret not listening to him. Life is short and time is finite. You will eventually run out of time.”  

I am experiencing too many feelings in this conversation: confusion, anger, sympathy and sadness. Just like Mount Vesuvius, there is red hot lava boiling up in my head. An eruption is inevitable. I suddenly snap at her, “You said I was incompetent!”  

“You’re alright as a waitress. But I know you’re unhappy. I wanted to give you some incentive to find a better job!”

Gertrude pauses and looks down at the counter for a moment. Then, she raises her head, as her eyes meet mine, she sighs, and says, “I was trying to get you fired. If you lost this job you would be forced to find something better. I’m sorry, I was wrong. I should have just told you that you could do better. You’re a smart girl Tammy. You deserve more.”

She pauses, eyes locked on me. “I heard about your father, your mother’s illness, and your brother’s accident. It’s a small town and everyone talks. But no matter how hard it is, you should always push forward even when the deck is stacked against you.”

With a sudden, widening, lop-sided smile, she adds, “You don’t want to turn out like me, do you?

A snort of laughter erupts from me. Then, my face flushes hot with embarrassment. My laughter is an admission of guilt; all those unkind thoughts that I had towards Gertrude. Oh god, I’m an ass.  

I place my hand on top of hers and quietly say, “No, I wouldn’t want that.”

I bite my lower lip and pause for a moment to consider her words. I hesitate as the card stares back at me, beckoning me to take a chance. I consider my other options. They are zero. I pick the card up and slide it into my apron.   

I turn around and reach for the coffee pot on the burner. I ask Gertrude, more gently than ever before, “More coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Gertrude says with her chin raised, sparkle in her eye, as she beams at me with a look of satisfaction.

 

Penelope Sophia Hawtrey's writing experience has been limited to writing research papers when she attended Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After University, she worked in a series of administrative positions in the private sector until she transitioned to the Public Service four years ago and currently work as Clerk. She has several other ongoing writing projects but remains unpublished at this time.

ONE

Earthquakes Made The Buildings Unsafe

And Still They Built Higher

 

 

W. Jack Savage is a retired broadcaster and educator. He is the author of seven books including Imagination: The Art of W. Jack Savage. More then fifty of Jack's stories and nearly four-hundred and fifty of his paintings and drawings have been published worldwide. Jack and his wife Kathy live in Monrovia, California.

Family Is Forever

 

            Travis, that’s my kid, comes home from school saying there’s no such thing as a “family,” not really.  My wife – her name’s Julie – exploded, sent the boy to his room and called the school, made a hell of a fuss.  Then she called her mother, some friends, and the PTA.  That gave me time to sneak back and talk to Travis about his interesting idea.

            If it’s true, I figured, it’d be the best news in years.

            Turns out it wasn’t even his teacher said that about families being a myth but some other kids, giving a report.  They were saying, according to Travis, that what we call the family hasn’t always existed, that it’s just an “evolutionary convenience.” (I’m sure he didn’t invent that phrase on his own, but he remembered it, which is something.) 

            I should have said Travis is in the 8th grade, I believe.  I don’t pretend he’s “gifted,” like every other kid in the country, but he does OK.  I was going to say, “He’s no dummy,” which is what my own father always said about me.  I hated that, as if the best lie he could tell was that somewhere, in some remote corner of the globe, maybe some island with no books or television, there existed somebody dumber.  Anyhow, I’ll just say that Travis can find his way to the toilet, dress himself, and keep from taking a hatchet to his mother.  That’s what I can honestly report his intelligence.  I suppose I could find out more if I gave a shit; but I don’t, which is healthy. 

            But we get along, cohabit OK.  That made it easy for me to ask him what he meant and get him to explain, like I was talking to some guy at work whose name you’re not sure you got right. 

            “Hey, Travis.  Mind if I come in?”

            “Guess not.”

            “Won’t keep you.  Tell me about the “evolutionary convenience” and I’ll take your Mother our shopping, make her forget all about how pissed she is at you.”

            “You’ll go shopping yourself?”

            “To a bar.  Drop her off and pick her up hours later, you know how it is.”

            “How the fuck should I know.”

            “You don’t go to bars?  How come?”

            “Jesus, Herman!”  (My name’s Herman.)

            “So, we have a deal?”

            “OK.  So Mary Kate and Todd gave this report on a book by Engels—you know him?”

            “I do.  Good guy.  A Commie.”

            “Whatever.  He wrote this book on where private property and the family came from, all tied together.”

            “All tied together?”

            “You gonna fucking let me finish?”

            “Go on.”

            “At one time, everybody lived in tribes, like, no families and no separations, no small groups that were permanent, just all together.  And women weren’t inferior or anything.  Everybody shared, you know.  Babies and stuff were taken care of by whoever wanted to or was best at it.  Then private property came along, excess goods you see, and the fucking men forced women into staying in the house and boring their asses off cleaning baby shit and dusting.  But all this is falling apart now, really fast.  First off, we have the Jews, you know about that.  Then we have almost everybody getting divorced and moving into communes and stuff.  It just doesn’t make sense in evolution to try and think families are what we need to have or are in any way natural, Mary Kate and Todd said.”

            “The Jews?”

            “Yeah, living in kibbuns or something, all together and no families.  You don’t even know about that?  God you’re dumb!”

            “Kibbutzim, not that it matters.  Thanks, Travis.  Now clean up your room!”

            “Huh?”

            “Just kidding.”

            “Fuck off!”

            “That’ll work too.”

            People often offer the following remark about Travis, at parties and work and, God help us, family reunions (which we’ll get to shortly):  “It’s such a difficult age.”  At first that seemed to me a stunner, enigmatic, positively Platonic in its sweep and stupe-fying obviousness.  Yessirree, like every other era, our early twenty-first century is full of difficulties; now, can you think of something to say that would actually lubricate a con-versation?  After a while, though, I realized—that is, Julie told me—they were speaking not about the world situation or something cosmic but about something local and trivial, Travis.  Turns out he was 13—Julie told me—when these comments began back then.  I admit I was puzzled as to what to say, fumbled about, trying, “Is it?” or “I wouldn’t know” or “It’s no concern of mine.”  It wasn’t all that long until I realized I could escape most easily by agreeing:  “It is indeed!” or “Oh my, yes!” or “What a job being a parent in this modern world of today!”  These came to me only after I learned that more enthu-siastic forms of agreement—“I hate the little asshole!” or “Too bad I can’t drown him like I did our cat!”—were not the thing, not the thing at all.  I discovered that.  I’m no dummy.

            Which brings me to family reunions, actually just one.  I don’t pretend they were all this dramatic but I’ll go to my grave shouting that the essence of these gatherings and of “family” is herein revealed.  But you’ll judge for yourself on that. 

This one I want to tell you about took place last August, which here in Georgia is always a nice time for a sixteen-hour picnic, not that the weather’s much of an issue in this case.  You might think the wet heat would shorten people’s tempers and lead to what happened, but my so-called family doesn’t need any assistance from nature----fire, tornados, plagues of locust:  it’d have made no difference. 

The first ruffle in our perfect day came when it turned out Susan 1 and Susan 2 had forgotten to reserve the shelter at the state park where we were all gathering.  What made it worse was that a couple of other cousins, Clarence and Lawrence or some such, got to this shelter first. It was about ten in the a.m., and they’d managed a good start on their day’s drunk.  (I hope you’re not quick to condemn such early drinking:  it was their way, and not a bad one, of greasing the slide through the interminable reunion, a hope for insensibility)  Anyhow, they didn’t know that the group there at the shelter they’d arrived at were the ones who belonged there; they thought they were trespassing.  What followed, then, was not the fault of anybody exactly, more like a misunderstanding; but you couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the legitimate shelter-occupiers, especially when they got their asses kicked real good, especially the kids.

Just as things were turning homicidal, the Susans showed up and all was smoothed over.  I guess it wasn’t very well smoothed over, considering the cops came, but only the ass-kicking cousins were arrested and nobody missed them anyhow, there being about sixty others in attendance who were indistinguishable both physically and mentally.  I’m not including Julie and me in that indictment, of course, at least not me.  Travis, I’m not sure about, though he does figure in the day’s events.

One problem with these reunions is that nobody ever planned anything---like a volleyball game or a hike or strippers.  People just got there, hauled out the potato salad, and sat.  Julie said, after about fifteen minutes of this, that she now knew what hell was like.  For once, that woman made some sense.

So, a little while into this sitting, Travis gets the bright idea of getting some of his wild teen cousins and, as he put it, “just get the fuck away from you assholes.”  No way anybody could object to that and it sure wasn’t anybody’s fault that the kids weren’t checked for assault weapons.  Just kidding.

So the younguns took off, the rest of us staring into space and trying not to count by seconds—one-thousand-one, one-thousand two—since there’d be about 57.600 (57, 599, 57, 598) of those little peckers. 

We needn’t have worried about boredom, as it turns out.  I didn’t see how it started, but before you could say “Let me outa here!” there were two big fat guys taking their shirts off.  They’d decided to liven things up with some wrestling.  Trouble was they started right in without clearing a space, much less erecting a ring.  At about the same time, a group of others, mainly women but not all, were forming a circle to sing hymns, one of them sporting an accordion.  And, as if that were not enough, the volleyball game I said nobody planned began, sort of on its own. 

All that sounds normal enough, I suppose, just what families figure they ought to do to hold up the myth that they are something together, not just victims of an illusion.  They got nothing in common, don’t much like one another, and have no interest in their mates; but they imagine they have bonds, bonds of love.  In a sane world, they’d be put out of their misery---which is almost what happened.

I’m happy to say I backed up a little hill, just to avoid becoming a wrestler, a singer, or a spiker.  That gave me a good view of what followed, which seems to me to illustrate what families truly are---at their best.

Basically, you see, there wasn’t near enough space for all these activities, which had started up independent of one another.  Soon, the wrestlers were colliding with the volleyball players and both were bashing the psalm-singers.  Wasn’t like there wasn’t room in the surrounding territories, but do you suppose anyone would give up their little piece of land, insufficient as it was?  You’d think they were each miners in Alaska in 49, protecting their claims. 

Before two minutes passed, laughter had turned to angry shouts and then to blows---men striking men, women striking women, both going after children.  Just as this

Fun was reaching what may have been its height, I noticed people falling to the ground, screaming, clutching legs or shoulders or eyes. 

            You’re way ahead of me:  the youth contingent had gone off to shoot birds and, finding few of them, had returned to shoot their elders.  Made sense to me.

            So, there you have it.  I gotta admit that this reunion was not altogether typical in being short.  It broke up after about an hour, as people needed to whomp on their gun-toting kids, keep slugging dear relations, or get themselves to the hospital.  I tried to talk to Travis about his part in the massacre, just out of general interest, but he still doesn’t trust me—more like doesn’t like me, which makes sense.  Families are like that.

James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and two novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett. He taught for years at University of Southern Cal and is now at The University of Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

Simple Is

 

Falling asleep with your fists open is this year's first subtle accomplishment.
Bargaining with your burdenssleep sticky in your eyes until noon.
It is not fulfilling to be the girl with four walls and a steady backpedal.
Like the sky, you are a function of extremes. Colors
from light to dark in an expanse of cyclical time. You
drink out of everyone's cup, burning your throat in the swallow.
What an act it is. What trouble: Believing that you aren't doomed.
Washing your hair feels like a good gift. You look up the word "simple"
in the dictionary and try to commit its synonyms to memory.
Straightforward. Easy. Painless.
And your favorite: uninvolved.
So you stop to iron out the wrinkles in your consciousness
a bit of bent elbow and teeth-gritting, strength in the hands. But the wrinkles
more like hills and valleys. More like a game you always lose.
Everyone else might blame it on a lack of luck or a generational curse.
God's temper. A ghost's joke.
You think it's just the matter of things. The pull and tug.
The great hum, from somewhere in between the stained horizons. Ceaseless
and uninvolved in its hand-outs and its take-aways.
A reduction of self is required. A peace offering with the body.
Slip out of your ego and into sacrifice. Into simple.
But simple is the cheap display in the spotty window.
An illusion of humble grandeur. A cop-out.
Simple is a cough-syrup swallow. A first-round knockout.
You're in it for the fight. The whole length.
You're in it till your teeth are hanging and your tongue tastes blood.
You're in till you don't remember that you ever didn't want to be in it.
Simple is a stone's throw away from coward.
And bravethat sticks in your hair. Sits in your shoes.
Brave is a mouthful of the bitterest kind.
And you have always loved the taste of your own resilience.

 

 

 

Rachel Dean likes cats, coffee, and carbs. She also really likes alliteration. 

Wild City

Wild things happen when you’re living in the city.

I’ve been living in the city my whole life.  Since I was a baby me.  Just a little guy.  And I don’t remember who my parents were anymore, so don’t ask.

On the day that I’m going to tell you about, man, it was a cold fucking day.  The snow was piling up since six.  My feet were near frozen.  The boots I wore, I’d picked up at one of those yard sales or thrift shops or giveaways that the church does.  Fuck, I don’t remember where I gottem.  But they’re good for nothing.  Especially for keeping my feet warm.

So, there I am, in the middle of town with cold ass feet.  I’ve got all my things.  Everything in the world that belongs to me, except my dreams and what not, all in this duffle bag that I found out back of the convention center.  It ain’t half bad either.  Not too smelly.  Not really that dirty.  And the zipper works too.  

I ain’t got nowhere to go.  That’s fine by me, though.  I’m used to it.  Been that way since I can remember.  A vagabond.  A traveler.  A man about town!

I was somewhere on Thirteenth street, I think, when the trouble started up.

The sky opened up.  I mean, it had been snowing for a few hours then, but then the sky literally opened up.  And all the negativity, all the hate and anger and strife this city doles out over the course of a lifetime just came dumping down on my head.  And I’ll admit it.  I lost my cool.  I got angry.  But hey, you would too.

I started to hear all the people who were around me.  They were getting angry too.  They were just grumbling at first, you know like union workers.  But then things built up.  And built up and so on until just damn near everyone around me was screaming. 

So, I started screaming too.

At that point, my toes was damn close to falling off.

I was up on Fourteenth Street by then.   By the Seven Eleven.  And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hot.  I was a goddamned human firecracker. 

I was screaming, yeah.  I was yelling, yeah.  And I was cold.  So, I went on inside the Seven Eleven.  I know the guy who owns the place, Hassan.  Hassan’s a nice guy and he’s usually real good to me.  Lets me use the restroom in the back if I need to.  It’s not often a guy like me finds a clean place to do business.  Sometimes, on the real real cold days, like this one, he lets me hang out in the back office.  Where it’s warm.  Where I can take my shoes off, toast my toes a little bit.  Where I can just be without everyone bothering me.

All those people though, the yelling ones, they was in there with me.  Shouting and hollering.  Saying all kinds of crazy stuff.  Coming out of their mouths all wrong.  You don’t talk to a guy like me with that kind of craziness.  And you sure don’t talk to a guy like Hassan with all that bass in your voice.

So, when I went inside I was yelling at them.

“Shut up!  Shut the fuck up!” I was trying to keep them calm, for Hassan’s sake.  He’s a real nice guy.

But it was no use.  They got Hassan all angry too.  Then he started yelling.  And let me tell you, that’s when all hell broke loose.  They was yelling at Hassan.  I was yelling at them.  And Hassan was yelling at all of us.

Well, in the city, when people get to carrying on like that the blue men aren’t usually that far off.  I was thankful too.  When I saw them blue lights outside I thought “Finally, somebody coming to get these crazy fucking people away from me”. 

But things get pretty hectic out there on the streets.  And things get all confused and people get all confused and I think that’s what happened.

I heard Hassan telling the blue men that I was the one yelling and screaming.  But he didn’t tell them about the other crazy people I was yelling at.  I don’t blame Hassan, though, he’s a real nice guy.  Sometimes people get confused.

So, then the blue men came at me.  Some of them were nice, they usually treat me alright.  I talked to them, real cool and real calm. But then the crazy people, you know the one’s yelling at me, they started getting all in my face again.  And the blue men weren’t doing anything to stop it!  So I started yelling again.

And did I mention, my damn does were still cold!  They hurt something awful, even in the heat of the store.  The rest of my body was sweating.  In the winter time I have to wear a lot of clothes.  A lot of layers.  That’s one of those tricks to keep you healthy out there.  You can have that one for free.

Then one thing led to another and those blue men, bless their souls, they got the story all wrong.  Just like Hassan got all mixed up, they did too.  But I can’t really get too mad at them.  All them crazy people yelling and screaming and talking nonsense, well it can get pretty disorienting.

So now I’m sitting in a jail cell.  Again. 

I tried to tell the blue men about how it all started.  How the sky opened up on me.  How the crazy people wouldn’t stop following me, wouldn’t stop yelling.  But they didn’t seem to care.  They said there’s more guys like me out there and they had to tend to them.

But, on the bright side, my toes didn’t fall off.  I gotta keep rubbin’ them.  The jail cell isn’t that warm, so I gotta keep rubbin’ them.  Keep rubbin’.  Keep rubbin’.  So damn cold in this city.

 

 

 

Ryan Morris is an emerging author living in the Washington, DC area. Focusing on the interplay between identity and reality, his work is as close to the truth as possible, with obvious exceptionsHe’s been published most recently in The Bitchin Kitsch and forthcoming in Sidereal Journal.